Back in 2014 when I was an exchange student in Japan, I made a trip from Kyoto to Tokyo in the middle of the semester with two of my international University friends, Ruby and Jess.
We chose the night bus as our method of transportation. It takes between 6 to 7 hours to reach Tokyo, we left Kyoto at 12AM (exactly) and got to Ikebukuro central bus station by 7 AM. With the Shinkansen (bullet train), paying a lot more, you can make the same distance in 3 hours.
When we reached Ikebukuro I was super tired and so excited. It was my first time in Tokyo, a city I had wanted to visit for most of my life. I felt familiar with the place somehow, and it seemed very natural to order my first Tokyo cup of coffee at the nearby Starbucks at 7:20 AM.
However, when we arrived at the subway, I was lost: the map indicating the different lines seemed INSANE to me. How do we even? What? Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but compared to the simple subway system in Kyoto, this was out of my league. A few months later, when I returned to Tokyo, I had a different perspective on this, but I still find Tokyo to be incredibly layered.
We arrived at our boarding house in Asakusa where we were planning on ONLY spending our nights at. Asakusa is considered “old style” Tokyo, wooden houses and shrines, it was reconstructed that way even though the entire place was burnt to the ground in WW2. The boarding house was very small, falling apart in some places and full of women. Oh, and the shower was in the kitchen. The cost was indeed very low and part of our successful “saving money” plan.
We dropped our bags and moved on to explore the city.
We returned around 11PM.
The landlord was a Japanese elderly woman and the rest of the girls were all foreigners from Malaysia and Indonesia. Most of them were aspiring immigrants who lived in that boarding house for a very long time and were cleaning offices for a living. We found ourselves in a tight room full of bunkbeds, each was 3 beds, so you could only crawl into your bed with some difficulty, which is what I did.
Some of the girls were removing their headscarves, others were already combing their hair. They were all amazed by our presence.
None of them spoke English. Japanese was our language of communication. I presented myself as an American named Effi (first time this happened), the girl in the bed above me got very excited. “We had people from Spain coming here, from the Netherlands, but never the US!”. “How come your hair is like this? So pretty” said another.
Before sunrise, some of the girls woke up to pray, then left for work. I laid in my small space listening to the sounds of their breathing, the ruffling of their clothes. Tokyo was waking up around us as well. Through the thin wooden walls of the room, I could hear voices in Japanese: A family was preparing for the new day, a TV was turned on somewhere, a child was laughing at something. All so close to our room, a room full of young women who don’t belong, yet, wish for a better life.
I was observing a side of Tokyo I wasn’t planning to see.
The next days, I visited Shibuya, Roppongi and the fanciest shopping centers I’ve ever been to in my life in Shinjuku. I returned to the boarding house each night (I even showered in the kitchen). Once, I let one of the girls to comb my hair, she told me I should always comb it with a wooden comb.
Tokyo exceeded my expectations. It is a lively, prosperous city, full of everything excellent- Food, Art and beautiful things.
But the boarding house is on my mind today and will stay there for a long time.